Detroit Tigers (27-12) at Cleveland Indians (19-25)
Time/Place: 7:05 p.m., Progressive Field
SB Nation blog: Let's Go Tribe
Pitching Matchup: LHP Drew Smyly (2-2, 2.70 ERA) vs. RHP Corey Kluber (4-3, 3.38 ERA)
After a quiet breakout season in 2013, Corey Kluber has gotten off to a dominating start in 2014. His 3.38 ERA is a bit misleading, as he has a 2.77 ERA since he was knocked around by the Oakland Athletics in his first start of the year. His 2.21 FIP is the third-best in baseball and his 5.08 strikeout-to-walk ratio ranks fifth in the American League. He is being victimized by a .353 BABIP this season, a number that should start to trend downward at any time. His line drive rate is slightly elevated at 21.7% and he has increased his ground ball rate to 47.6% this year. SIERA, which takes batted balls into account, agrees with this notion. His 2.78 SIERA is sixth in the AL, just behind Max Scherzer at 2.76.
Kluber was rocked by the Tigers in his first start against them in 2013, allowing eight runs on 11 hits in a 10-4 loss. After that, he was quite good. In three starts following that first stinker, Kluber allowed five runs in 20 innings and racked up 24 strikeouts to just four walks. These numbers are similar to what Kluber is putting up against the rest of the American League this season. The command in particular is promising, so far confirming that he can maintain the excellent 5.4% walk rate he had last year. Part of this is due to the fact that opposing hitters are swinging at 34.5% of the pitches he throws outside of the strike zone, one of the highest rates in the league. They're also not making much contact either, resulting in an 11.0% swinging strike percentage, seventh-best in the AL.
Kluber's arsenal isn't particularly complicated. He throws a fastball about 80% of the time, though his cutter is a couple miles per hour slower than the two-seam fastball. He mixes in a slider roughly 15% of the time against both right and left-handed hitters, and throws a changeup 8% of the time against lefties. His out pitch is his slider -- its usage rate jumps to 30% with two strikes -- which hitters whiff on over 20% of the time. His two-seamer is by far his most hitable pitch. Opposing hitters have a .375 batting average and .529 slugging average off of that pitch this season.
Drew Smyly has been quite good this season, and he seems to be heading into a promising situation this evening: the Indians are the worst team in baseball against left-handed pitching.
The last team with a lower OPS against left-handed pitchers than the Indians have right now was the 1982 Houston Astros. The last team with a lower slugging percentage was the 1981 San Diego Padres. The last team with a lower batting average was the 1971 Milwaukee Brewers.
Just about any way you slice it, the Indians are hitting lefties worse than any team in more than 30 years. And among AL teams, they're hitting lefties worse than any team since the designated hitter was implemented in 1973.
One thing working against Smyly are his heavy platoon splits. He has been hell on left-handed hitters this year, holding them to a .292 OPS (yes, you read that correctly). Meanwhile, righties are hitting a comfortable .270/.337/.483 with all four home runs that Smyly has allowed. Once again, the Indians lead the league in percentage of plate appearances seen with the platoon advantage at 78%. Something has to give this evening with Smyly likely facing a righty-heavy lineup.
Hitter to fear: Michael Brantley (.571/.667/1.000 in 9 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Lonnie Chisenhall (.000/.000/.000 in 5 plate appearances)
Smyly has struggled against the Indians in limited action, allowing a 5.09 ERA in 17 2/3 innings. He allowed four runs in six innings in his only career start against them back in 2012, but was roughed up a couple times in 2013 when coming out of the bullpen. Because of this, six Indians hitters have a career OPS of 1.000 or higher against Smyly, though no one has more than 10 plate appearances against the Tigers' lone lefty starter. He is unlikely to face left-handers Lonnie Chisenhall or David Murphy, who are a combined 0-for-9 against him.
The Tigers and Indians are at complete opposite ends of the spectrum after last weekend. While the Tigers were sweeping the defending champions at Fenway Park, the Indians were getting bludgeoned by the only legitimate challenger for the Tigers' current "best team in baseball (even though it's only May)" moniker. The Oakland Athletics outscored the Indians 30-6 over the weekend, deflating the Tribe's run differential from -5 to -29 in one fell swoop. The Indians have lost four straight, but Kluber has been their stopper in 2014. Runs should be at a premium tonight, so it will be up to Smyly to keep the Tigers within striking distance.
The Tigers keep rolling, winning a nailbiter in the late innings.